Building With Foam

At the end of 2016, my son and his family got their own place and I gave them one of my guest room beds. Rather than replace it, I turned that room into my train room. I bought a 4×8 sheet of decking grade half-inch plywood and some planks of pine to frame it. I also bought a pair of saw horses, figuring I would build the table under it later. I also bought a 4X8 sheet of foam insulation board and 6 pieces of 2x2x1 foam board. This after I read that foam board is much more practical and easier to build terrain than wood cutouts. I can attest that this is true. Another benefit is the entire diorama is lighter as well.

Also during my research I came across the Woodland Scenics products. They make pretty much everything a modeler needs to build a diorama for school or to build a model railroad. I bought the Subterrain 2% incline ramps to put my track into the multilevel position I envisioned. When I got the two sets of ramps back, I opened one of the boxes and it was mispackaged, not giving me the entire set of risers, but instead I had two sets of the same risers which would not elevate the way I needed. Since this was my first exposure to Woodland Scenics, I thought maybe I didn’t understand how it was supposed to work. But the guys at Papa Ben’s squared me away and exchanged the faulty package. With two correct sets, I was able to start planning the actual layout on the board.

The great thing about the Subterrain system is that you can use pins to affix the sections in place and test them to make certain the layout works before you need to glue them permanently. It was during this phase that I learned my initial design was…problematic. It required turn radii that exceeding the tolerances of most locomotives. I got the idea to use my Atlas preformed track curve sections as a pattern for the curves, figuring that if the Atlas track was designed and manufactured expressly for trains, that it would be a good pattern. Turns out that notion was only 80% correct, but I wouldn’t find out about that until later.  Woodland Scenics might consider molding turn radius marks into the risers so modelers can have a heads-up about the turns.

I did find out through research that there are several manufactured radii for N-scale track: 9.75-inch and 11.25-inch being common. Unfortunately, the difference can be significant when it comes to running the trains based on how long the locomotives and rolling stock trucks are. I worked to layout the risers to match the pattern I drew, and found it was a struggle to account for the crossing clearances. When I was at the train show in Stafford, I bought a model of a viaduct that I wanted in my setup, so I had to account for that length and then figure out the tunnel. In my first drawing I only had one tunnel planned.


I cut sections out of the riser where I needed the tunnel entrance to be and inserted gaps in the risers for the bridges.

Using foam is so much easier than cutting plywood and having to measure angles. While I am not about advertising, if you want to learn more about the mechanics of using foam to build a layout, check out woodland scenic’s website and you tube channel. Of course, they will try to sell you their whole line of products and if you want to spend the money on them, go ahead. Just know there are cheaper ways of accomplishing the same goal. For example, the construction grade Styrofoam I bought for the buildup is a bit cheaper by the sheet and it doesn’t crumble as bad when cutting. I do recommend the incline blocks. As you can see in my model, I used cut sections of the pink foam to act as risers and buildups.

As you can see in this picture, I tried to use spray foam to fill in the gaps. DO NOT DO THIS!! It failed miserably and necessitated a major surgery on the layout to correct the problem. The foam got under the inclines and lifted them in spots, making the angle too steep for long trains. I have to cut the section out and re-glue them to get back to the 2% incline (which, by the way, is about as steep as you want an N-scale train to go).

One final thought on layouts. If you are adding a tunnel, leave cut out sections on the back to access the track in the event of a derailment.



The Plan!

After deciding on doing the model, I needed to figure out what kind of layout I wanted. I knew I didn’t want a circle or even an oval. Too boring. I needed something interesting. I figured on a figure eight, but with a twist. There is an electrical issue with doing figure eights having to do with polarity. It is also dangerous to run multiple trains across a single crossing point. I needed to do an overpass. But that wasn’t interesting enough for me, especially after looking at the layouts online. I decided to do a figure eight inside an oval, with spur and two tunnels. Ambitious for a first time modeler, but I always bite off more than I can chew, why should this be any different?

So I drew it out. Here is the plan:

I also wanted a separate track for my Jupiter to run as an excursion train that wouldn’t interfere with the main lines, so I added a dog bone secondary track. This made it necessary to raise the entire layout with multiple bridges.

The guy at Papa Ben’s train store kinda shook his head when I showed it to him, even as he said it was doable. I think he thought I was getting in over my head.

The EZ Track Experiment

The first part of my train journey was deciding on what trains to have. I already had the 4-4-0 Jupiter, but in needing a transformer and track, It made more sense to just buy a boxed set to save money. Of course, this meant getting a new locomotive too. I ordered a 0-6-0 steam locomotive boxed set from Amazon. While shopping I noticed they had a diesel boxed set marked down, so I bought that one as well, figuring I could always use more track and rolling stock. Then I saw a boxed set with a union pacific locomotive that also had a diesel switcher train. It was a two-fer! The item listed something I had not heard of at that point, though: DCC. Digital Command Control is a system that allows the controller to drive two locomotives on the same track separately. Sounded cool, so I got that one too. All of the sets featured Bachmann’s EZ Track system to snap together the plastic track bed and rails. This system is perfect for carpet trains and kids, but doesn’t offer any realism for modelers. I would find this out as I went along, sadly after plunking down a lot on this kind of track.

All three boxes came within days of each other and I set them up on my coffee table. I now had four locomotives, but I was most concerned with my 4-4-0 Jupiter. I First laid the track in the standard oval, which, as I mentioned before got boring pretty quickly. The Jupiter ran OK, but it was sputtering. The other trains all ran fine though, so I figured it was the fact that the Jupiter had sat so long.

My coffee table was square so that limited the ways I could lay out the track. Besides, I wasn’t going to make a permanent model on my coffee table, was I? Or was I…Hmmmm. Something to think about. So I ordered some more track segments and switches and made this. I even started building a model out of balsa wood. More on that later.


Once I saw the DCC system working on the EZ Track, I began to think about a more permanent and realistic layout.  I was already seeing the limitations of EZ Track in that the tracks were very expensive and noisy and not realistic looking.  I remembered the flex track I had bought oh, so long ago and knew I had to get that kind of track if I wanted a realistic looking model.  I also knew I needed more rolling stock to make more realistic looking trains, but I didn’t think I needed any more locomotives.  I was wrong.

Model railroading is like any other hobby in that once you think you have enough, you find so much more to do and get.  It can get real expensive real  fast if you don’t pace yourself.

I decided to go full on diarama with a four by eight piece of plywood and build from there.  I needed to research how to get started, though, and fortunately, the internet was full of ideas and tips.  I will relate many of what i have found in this blog.  Stay tuned!

Running in the Family

When I was a child, I would occasionally spend the night with my Grandmother in Cabot, Arkansas and just after bed time, a large train would come rumbling by her house, as she lived less than 100 yards from a main line, and I would jump out of bed to watch the train go by. The night air was cool and the grass and pavement were lit by the moon and starlight and the one or two street lamps that ran along the road between the house and the train track. The lonesome whistle of the engine and the clickity clack of the train wheels on the steel tracks were the only sounds I heard as I watched the trains roll along. I wouldn’t budge from my perch until I saw the caboose roll along into the darkness. Some nights, I went to bed disappointed once the railroad companies stopped using cabooses.

Figure 1 My Granddad Standing next to a retired steam locomotive circa 1970.

My mother tells me that both of my Grandfathers worked for the Missouri Pacific railroad back in the forties, fifties and sixties; mom’s dad was an engineer and dad’s dad was a conductor, and both worked for the railroad until their respective deaths. Their company was eventually bought out by Union Pacific.

My father has always had an interest in model trains as long as I can remember. His preference was the large modern diesels that pulled America’s freight ( I surmise this was because of his career in transportation logistics) while I preferred the old steam locomotives of the 1800s.

My parents bought me a train when I was a child, one of those carpet trains with the oval shaped track that could be set up and taken down quickly. Of course, the problem with those train sets was that in designing them that way, the manufacturers guaranteed themselves repeat business as pieces would invariable get broken or lost in the process. Another problem with those sets was that running the train in a perpetual circle or oval got boring pretty quickly. The only way to alleviate that boredom was to actually build a model railroad with buildings and tunnels and bridges.

My father had a grand plan to set up a full scale model railroad on a large piece of plywood with miniature buildings, cars and trees; a small scale duplicate of a slice of America that we could control. Sadly, this model never reached fruition as we didn’t have room for it in the house and when we started it in the garage, it got pushed aside to make room for more practical matters. I hear from mom that he did eventually set it up after I moved out on my own.

Sometime around 1997 or 1998, my dad and I went to the Arkansas railroad museum in Pine Bluff. While we were there, I bought a small N-scale steam locomotive and a few cars and some track; enough pieces to build a small working electric train setup. I had no aspirations of building a large model train set, but I always like the wood-burning steam engine with its large bell-shaped smoke stack, and I wanted to have one that would run on my desk while I did my homework, since was attending college at UALR. I don’t remember ever getting it running, though, and that engine sat on a piece of track on my desk until I moved away. Then it sat in the hutch on my desk for another 16 years, doing nothing more than gathering dust.

In December, 2016, I took an assignment to write an article about a display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science called Trains over Texas. The museum had a large O-Scale model railroad built featuring natural and man-made landmarks of Texas. While researching the story, I watched the model trains run and talked to several museum docents, who were avid train modelers. This reignited my interest in model trains and I became interested in whether my old train would still run after all these years. Of course, this meant I would need track and transformer, which I did not have.

In trying to find one, I determined it would be cheaper to just buy a boxed railroad train set from Amazon, rather than piece the track together.

I got the train set, put it together and ran the n-scale coal-burning steam locomotive that came with the kit. It worked fine. I then put my old train on it. It sputtered and spun its tires and did its best to run, but it needed some TLC and maintenance before it was going to work. I knew nothing about maintaining a locomotive. I had to learn quick.

I quickly found out that model railroading is not a mainstream hobby, and the big box hobby stores are woefully inadequate to supply the model railroad hobbyist. Michael’s has absolutely nothing for trains and Hobby Lobby only stocks two or three boxed train sets, but no individual pieces or models. As a matter of fact, a Google search turned up only two hobby stores in the entire Houston metroplex that serves the train community.

G&G hobbies is a general purpose hobby shop in Rice Village that does have a few locomotives, track, models, and even some box sets. It even has parts to repair trains, so that’s good. It does have a very large selection of rolling stock (trainspeak for train cars). Sadly, the focus of the store is Remote Control (RC) toys and plastic models, and apparently only one employee knows anything about trains. As such, G&G was unable to help me service my little Jupiter.

Papa Ben’s is a train shop in the Montrose area which offers nothing but trains. Its entire focus is model railroading. They even have a “club room” with a huge N-scale layout setup where members of the local train club come and play. One employee, a tall man named Steve, not only was able to educate me on how to maintain my Jupiter, he even fixed the broken coupler on the tender for me. I was able to get several ideas for my train setup and all the part I need to complete it.

I also attended a train show in Stafford that had several stores from all over the country as well as many of the chapters of the model train club. I took my grandsons to this show and they had a ball controlling an HO switcher to put together all the cars needed to form a train.

An old high school friend of mine contacted me several months prior and offered me the chance to partner up with him in a hobby shop in New Hampshire. When he found out I like model railroading, he became very excited and declared I would be the train guy! Now, I am learning a lot about trains as a result of my efforts to fix my Jupiter, but I don’t know if I’m “the train guy.”

I learned about a new technology in model railroading that did not exist the last time I entertained the notion of trains. Digital Command Control equipped trains have a computer chip that allows the train master to run multiple trains on one track independently. With old DC technology, any train on the track would draw the current from the transformer and they would all run based on the amount of current. The train master couldn’t set independent speeds or stop a single train. It was all or nothing. Also, DCC allows the master to turn the train light on and off at will. Some trains even have a sound chip so it actually rings the bell, whistles and chugs along the track with realistic noises.

Now I have gotten the idea to retrofit my Jupiter with one of these DCC chips and an LED bulb to make it more realistic.

While I was in a train shop in New Hampshire, I found two flat bed cars with Army tanks on them. I thought they were clever so I bought them so I would have something more interesting than just plain old box cars or tanker cars. At a store in Austin, I found a surface to ground missile on a rail car. At a train show in New Braunfels, I found flat bed cars with other military vehicles and I got the idea of making an Army train. I bought two flat beds with a duce-n-half, two ¼ ton jeeps an M113 and an M577; all vehicles I drove in the my time in the Army. So now, I plan on having a Chessie System locomotive pull my Army train, my Union Pacific engine pull the box cars and I am thinking of getting some logging cars for my 0-6-0 steamer to pull. My Jupiter will pull my excursion train, which has a Pullman car and two open sided passenger cars.

All I had to do at this point was build a model train layout on which my trains could roll. I’m creating a new blog to document the development of my model. Have fun. I hope I will.